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Norovirus is so common the Health District doesn’t bother keeping stats on it

IT’S THE MOST COMMON CAUSE of acute gastroenteritis — a severe case of the stomach yucks.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noroviruses are three times more common than food poisoning, and will leave you speechless and trapped a few feet away from your bathroom. Commonly referred to as “stomach flu,” they are flu-like in that they are caused by viruses, and can bring mild fever. Like influenza, the number of cases spikes annually around January.

Like bacteria that cause food poisoning, noroviruses are commonly spread by food contact or contact with a contaminated surface. But they can also be spread through the air after people aerosolize the virus through vomiting.

The good news is that noroviruses, which are named after the town, Norwalk, Ohio, from which the virus was first isolated following a 1968 outbreak, are almost never fatal. But you might not believe that if you’ve been exposed.

The bad news is that you’ll experience 24 to 48 hours of vomiting, diarrhea, body aches and assorted misery. And according to the CDC, more than 20 million people are hit by the virus annually in the United States. About 70,000 are hospitalized and 800 die.

More bad news: Influenza can be prevented with a vaccine, and victims acquire immunity. Noroviruses, however, mutate rapidly and so do not provide long-lasting immunity, and there is no vaccine.

Anyone is a potential target for the virus, which essentially and efficiently turns its victims into biological factories for producing more virus.

Recently, the disease literally laid low Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, causing her to faint, hit her head and causing a serious blood clot that required hospitalization. Last week, an outbreak on the Queen Mary II cruise ship, on a 12-day jaunt out of New York, swept through the passengers, causing hundreds of infections. And some health officials on the East Coast, in Portland, Ore., and in California are reporting outbreaks in what medical officials fear could be, as it is already proving to be with influenza, a particularly bad year for the disease.

Cruise ships are notorious for norovirus outbreaks. But anywhere where there are thousands of people crowded together, especially relying on food-service preparation, the virus can hit. Las Vegas is essentially a huge, landlocked cruise ship, brimming with restaurants and bars and public bathrooms and visitors from all over — perfect for spreading the disease.

One Las Vegas casino company executive, who for obvious reasons didn’t want his name and company associated with projectile vomiting, admitted last week that the virus is a nightmare. Infected properties have to be thoroughly cleaned with disinfectants approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, hotel rooms have to be closed, kitchen areas can be sidelined.

Gary Thompson, spokesman for Caesars Entertainment, says his company’s properties in Las Vegas have been, to his knowledge, spared an outbreak, but they have had the virus infect Caesars properties in other parts of the country. An outbreak requires extensive disinfection procedures.

“As a result of that, we implemented a number of procedures. … We do everything possible to make sure they don’t happen again,” Thompson says.

How common is the disease in Las Vegas? No one really knows. There are certainly anecdotal reports of the disease popping up here for decades. But although the Southern Nevada Health District responds to specific outbreaks, “We don’t keep statistics on it because it is so common,” says Jennifer Sizemore, public information manager with the Southern Nevada Health District.

Linda Verchick, epidemiology supervisor with the Health District, says the virus is always lurking.

“It’s always going on,” she says. “It’s like any virus. It has peak seasons, like influenza, but it will resolve on its own in a day or two. The most threatening aspect is dehydration.”

Health-care providers are not required to test for the disease, but casinos, health-care facilities and nursing homes and other public facilities are required to report outbreaks to the Health District. So far, there have been no mass events this season, Verchick says.

Nonetheless, if you believe you’re infected, don’t go to work, especially if you work with health care or in food service. “It spreads rapidly and it’s a hearty little bug.”